Friday night thousands will crowd downtown Denver for one of the city’s oldest celebrations -- the Grand Illumination of the city and county building.  And the display's history is almost as colorful as its lights.

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If you’ve ever seen the way they light up Denver’s main municipal building, I bet you haven’t forgotten it.  If you haven’t seen it, picture this -- the building’s block-long curve of columns aglow in dozens of different colors: candy colors, fantasia colors, an aurora borealis of lights.

McCRORY: "It’s a little overwhelming visually when you first see it.  Especially with all the angles and toy soldiers.  But it is unique, it captures your eye.  You almost have to drive by just to check it out."

That’s McCrory James with Click Photo Tours.  He’ll be spending nights this winter teaching groups how best to capture the spectacle on film.  It’s definitely one of Denver’s favorite spots for photographers.  Nate Webb is with the contractor programming this year’s display.

WEBB: "We have a joke with the company where, as soon as we turn lights on, there’ll be a flash out here on the street.  Somebody’ll be pulling over taking a picture or... oh, it’s inevitable.  So it’s pretty funny."

I don’t think Webb had much to worry about from a photo ambush at that particular moment.  I met him in front of the building earlier this week -- at a finger-nippingly cold 5:30am.  It's pitch black, the perfect time for Webb to test drive a new feature of the lights this year: a five minute display choreographed to music.

On cue, the spotlights flash on, drenching the building in waves and of color.  Among the huddled observers is facilities manager Suzi Latona, who’s in charge of the display. Seeing it in motion for the first time gets her teary-eyed.

LATONA: "I love musical theatre and it took me right there.  You know, when it’s the boom-boom-boom-boom and the whole building goes red, a dark red, it’s ominous.  And then it goes into Jingle Bells and the building is all colorful and everything’s moving.  Yeah, it moves you."

When the music program ends, the facade settles into mostly greens and reds: very festive.  The design changes every year with city workers proposing the colors and patterns.  It’s not a high-tech process.  In her office, Latona digs out a stack of old submissions. On each page, colored pencils shade in a photocopied outline of the building.

LATONA: "These are guys who are licenced electricians and HVAC technicians.  they’re maintenance workers for the city who get to do this and their artistic talents get to pop out."

Colorado historian Thomas Noel says Denver’s holiday lights started even before its main building was finished in the 1930s... One particular city worker started a make-shift tradition that led to today’s colorful displays.

NOEL: "John Malpia, the guy who started it, was the city electrician and he would use spare parts and he would rig this think up with whatever was available and a light would go out and you’d get another one that might be another color."

TR 7:  If you think Denver goes all out for the holidays these days, you should have been around back then -- city officials would raid the deer and elk pens at the zoo, bring the beasts downtown, and put them on display as reindeer.  Noel says this was all part of Denver’s drive to be seen as America’s Christmas City.  Whether or not anyone bought that in the rest of the country, Denver’s scrappy display hasn’t always been loved at home. 

NOEL:  "The first mayor to object was mayor Newton back in the 1950s and he brought in a Princeton architect to tone down what he called the ‘garish’ city and county building lighting.  And there was a blizzard of protest, it was the most unpopular thing Mayor Newton ever did.  So he backed off and we still have what many people would call garish lighting."

The display isn’t just lighting -- among the toy soldiers and dancing elves, it also includes a nativity, and that has landed the city in court more than once.  In 1986, the Colorado Supreme Court finally ruled the creche doesn’t count as establishment of religion because the total display includes lots of secular elements, and because the city’s main goal is to entice people downtown to shop.  Court-sanctioned commercialization of Christmas?

Lately the economy’s taken its toll on the display.  This year, lighted wreathes and bells and snowmen are stuck in storage; the city couldn’t spare enough workers to put them all out.  But even without them, Suzi Latona says the holidays will still be bright.

LATONA:  "To me, every day is Disneyland with this lighting display."

Latona and her maintenance crew consider the City and County building’s decorations their gift to the city; a present that will be unwrapped tonight when the mayor throws the big switch and sets in motion the latest of Denver’s grand illuminations.